From its inception, Israel has promoted the myth of its own isolation and vulnerability; it has claimed the mantle of the surrounded underdog. The realities, as Israeli military power created facts on the ground, have always been otherwise. Today, Jordan and Egypt are US-Israeli dependencies, with the latter playing a critical role in bottling up the Gaza strip. Other Arab regimes, hostile to HAMAS and radicalism in general, have offered nothing but words, and feeble ones at that. The US, Britain, the EU (which plans to strengthen preferential ties with Israel), India, China and of course the UN Security Council, fettered with the inevitable US veto - all have made it clear that Israel will be allowed to take this action with impunity. It’s the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who are besieged, isolated and vulnerable.
Defenders of Israel speak often of the “existential threat” under which the country labours. Evidence for this usually consists of quotations from HAMAS leaders threatening Israel with extinction. Unconsidered are the numerous statements over many years from Israeli political leaders threatening the Palestinians, treating them as sub-human and their rights and lives as expendable. In February 2008, Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai threatened Gaza with a “bigger shoah” - “shoah” being the Hebrew word for holocaust. As we’ve seen in recent weeks in Gaza, this was no idle threat, and it is “existential” in an immediate and material sense.
Beyond the jaded circles of professional statecraft, people around the world have been appalled by the disproportionate nature of the Israeli punishment of the alleged Palestinian offence. There are many ways to present the calculation. In the years between the Israel’s heavily qualified withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the beginning of the current offensive, some 18 Israelis were killed by rocket-fire from Gaza; during the same period some 2000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli military action. In the first week of the offensive, 400 rockets were fired from Gaza, taking four Israeli lives; it took only a few minutes for Israel to hit Gaza with four hundred bombs and missiles, which within a week had taken 400 lives.
Thanks mainly to the US, but with help from Britain, India and others, Israel is one of the world’s great military powers. Even before they sent tanks and armoured vehicles into Gaza’s densely-populated territory, the Israelis had struck from the air with wave after wave of F16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters and pilotless aerial drones. Against that formidable arsenal, the Palestinians have no aircraft, no defence against air attack, no tanks, no heavy artillery, and no regular army.
On this scale, disproportionality is not merely a matter of arithmetic; it reflects the relationship between perpetrator and victim, dispossessor and dispossessed.
The Israeli “all out war on HAMAS” is in practise an indiscriminate assault on the people of Gaza and their society. Their early targets included government and residential buildings, television stations, universities, mosques and marketplaces. An Israeli officer explained the strategy to a Washington Post reporter: “We are trying to hit the whole spectrum, because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel.”
The officer was giving expression to the inexorable logic of collective punishment, which underpins both the current offensive and the blockade which preceded it. Like it or not, HAMAS is a social force in Gaza, and as the Israeli officer explained, its agents and supporters cannot be targeted in isolation. The use of indisciminate violence against a civilian population in pursuit of political aims is as clear a definition of terrorism as we possess, and the Israeli attack on Gaza is as much an example of this as the HAMAS rocket fire on southern Israel. But because this act of terror is committed by a powerful state, it is not described as such. Once again, the “war on terror,” whose mantle Israeli officials have wrapped themselves in, has been used to license state terror.
The Israelis ask what else they could have done in response to the rocket attacks on its citizens. The answer is painfully obvious: end the blockade of Gaza (which has been HAMAS’s key condition for a ceasefire), and then begin to redress the litany of entirely justified Palestinian demands. Do what the rest of the world has urged for decades, end the occupation and accept a genuinely independent Palestinian state.
But the offensive suggests that Israel is not prepared to countenance that solution. The concessions required are too great: the abandonment of settler expansion on the West Bank and a curtailment of Israeli regional supremacy, believed to be essential for the survival of the Jewish state.
Surely no member of the Israeli cabinet actually believes that this onslaught will reduce attacks on Israel, either in the short or long term. What then is aim of the war? The idea seems to be to grind down the Palestinians until, bereft of necessities, infrastructure, leaders, and hope, they are compelled to accept a solution on Israel’s terms. In a sense, then, what Israel is fighting for in Gaza is the West Bank, much of which it hopes to annexe if and when Gaza is finally subdued.
Certainly a core motive of the war is to reaffirm Israeli military supremacy, embarrassingly compromised by its reversals in Lebanon in 2006. Perhaps there is a hope that in stripping HAMAS bare, they will weaken and discredit Islamist radicalism across the region, just as the six day war of 1967 crippled Nasser-style Arab nationalism.
In a coarse reversal of historical responsibility, Israelis insist that the Palestinians are the sole authors of their own suffering. Written out of the script are: the origins of the Gaza population, 80% of whom belong to families forced from their homes in Israel in 1948; four decades of direct military occupation, during which Gaza was made an economic dependency of Israel; the blockade, which has cut off essential supplies of food, fuel and medicine, and which was initiated because Gazans had voted for HAMAS in a democratic election.
There is a growing fissure between governments and people on this matter. Those 50,000 in London were joined by thousands more in 25 cities across the UK; there were demonstrations in New York (a reported 25,000), Paris, Sydney, Johannesburg, Rome, Jakarta, and across the Arab world. Despite the best efforts of the Israeli publicity machine, this latest crime has only given more people yet more reason to protest.